The Royal Opera House, London
July 8, 2018
The Royal Ballet School’s annual performance at the Royal Opera House picked up where Holland Park left off, with Aurora’s Wedding. It’s an odd choice for an opening ballet, something much more suited to closing the half, or even closing the show. An aperitif is often served to spark the appetite, and dance performances often need one too. Maybe that’s why, to begin with at least, it all felt a little underwhelming and lacking in spark.
Things soon warmed up though. The fairy variations were pleasing. As at Holland Park, I was impressed by the spiky determination of Katharina Nikelski as the Fairy of the Golden Vine and Yu Kurihara as the Songbird Fairy, but here also by Yuki Sugiura’s delicacy and use of head and eyeline in the Fairy of the Woodland Glade. Still only 2nd Year Madison Bailey was a very feisty Puss, quite firmly and audibly slapping Puss-in-Boots’ hand when he dared touch her leg. Taisuke Nakao again soared in his jumps as the Bluebird.
The more I see of White Lodge students as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the more I think having youngsters dance it is a great idea of Anthony Dowell’s. It always looks just a little silly with adults. Katie Robertson, with her huge eyes, in particular gave a gem of a cameo, filling the vast theatre with her perosnality.
Yu Hang and Harrison Lee were, if anything, even better in the big pas de deux than a week or so earlier. Lee positively swept round the stage in his ménage, full of gloriously long leaps. Putting Nijinska’s setting of the Three Ivans after the Grand Pas doesn’t work. Enthusiastically virtuoso it may be, but it just feels all wrong to have what is effectively another divertissement taking the attention away from the main couple.
A complete change of direction came with part of Didy Veldman’s TooT, created originally in 2005 for the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. Performed mostly by White Lodge Years 10 and 11, it examines conformity and rebellion through the metaphor of circus.
Driven by Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.2, the white-faced dancers are propelled ever onwards as they obediently but playfully respond to the demands of Harris Bell and his megaphone. It’s not too long, though, before some get tired of being ordered around and things start to break down. It may have Veldman’s quirky humour writ all the way through it but the dance is also very firmly rooted in classical ballet with all its lines and patterns. The comedy works a treat, not least when Toby Seddon sings ‘Bolare’ while the others swing along to it. Think about it and it’s not difficult to see references to the Soviet Russia of Shostakovich’s time in the work, in its demands for conformity, the rebelling against the ruling order, and in the broken promises of its leaders, represented by an odd pas de deux between Upper School 2nd years Ginevra Zambon and William Boswell, her ‘clothed’ in a cluster of red balloons before vanishing. BUt you don’t have to worry about that. Just enjoy the fun. Most entertaining.
Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes is a wonderfully danceable piece of music and Andrew McNicol’s eponymous ballet, danced by the Upper School 1st years again delivered. In his Sea Interludes, McNicol, influenced by its imagery, gives full rein to its different moods. The big ensemble is well handled but it’s at its best when there are less dancers on stage. An early men’s trio, quite slow and full of held arabesques is best, although the following playful women’s trio runs it close. The men’s limbs sometimes seemed to stretch out into the vastness of the ocean, but at others those outstretched arms have palms flexed like ailerons. Dancing it against a plain black backdrop also seemed to enhance Suzie Holland’s costumes of white trousers and bare tops for the men, and graduated blue dresses for the women.
I was rather less taken with Tania Fairbairn’s Snegurochka (Snow Maiden to you and me) for White Lodge Years 7, 8 and 9, which did have some pleasant dance and patterns marshalled among the walking and mime. I think I preferred folk dances.
Pulcinella Suite by Mark Annear to excerpts from Stravinsky’s score of the same title was neatly danced by the White Lodge Year 10 and 11s. As with McNicol’s earlier ballet, it is at its best when there are fewer dancers on stage. The one real stand out moment, and it was a big one, came in an exciting, scarily accurate and fast solo by Maxwell Dawe to the brass of the Toccata.
As a piece of choreography, Robert Binet’s exploration of undefined love, Self & Soul, was the pick of the second half. The dance is as fragmentary as the excerpts from Noa Sadka’s diary on which it is based. The intelligent choreography captures personal moments, often mundane moments that would otherwise pass by unnoticed. It sometimes shifts suddenly from tender, emotional and deeply intimate, as when Rebecca Blenkinsop and Harris Bell caress each other’s faces, to cold as they turn their backs on one another. In a way, it would be nice to see some ideas extended but it is a very real, if symbolic, representation of how relationships are.
The excerpts from Nacho Duato’s whole-evening work Multiplicity, forms of silence and emptiness were all confidently performed. Inspired by the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach, it draws on the emotions in the composer’s music. While the full work does have characters besides Bach, danced here by the elegant Simon Regourd, the corps are essentially seen as notes or instruments, perhaps none more so than in the Chelo section in which Madison Bailey is played by Regourd with his bow in a dance that can quite easily be seen as unfortunately misogynistic.
As always, the performance closed with the traditional Grand Defilé, during which some of the men got the chance to let rip with their jumps and turns.
While a most enjoyable afternoon, it was also a rather unbalanced one, although I understand why Aurora’s Wedding couldn’t come immediately before the Grand Defilé. It was good to see the Duato there, even in ballet companies they students are going to come across such contemporary works these days (and in many ways it actually makes more sense than the Bournonville that was seen at Holland Park), but it would have been nice to have had another well-known, classical piece in the second half somewhere that really showed the 3rd Years’ technique off. Maybe even a piece of Ashton, notably lacking once again. But the School should be proud of its dancers and especially its graduates, now moving on to bigger things.
The Royal Ballet (Aud Jebsen Young Dancers programme): Harris Bell, Yu Hang, Harrison Lee, Taisuke Nakao, Katharina Nikelski, Amelia Townsend.
Birmingham Royal Ballet: Isabella Howard, Callum Findlay-White, Tori Forysthe-Hecken, Yu Kurihara, Lennert Steegen, Yuki Sugiura.
English National Ballet: Rebecca Blenkinsop.
Scottish Ballet: Aaron Venegas de Frutos.
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company: Eli Gruska.
Ballet de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux: Ryota Hasegawa.
Dutch National Ballet Junior Company: Dingkai Bai, Lore Zonderman
Norwegian National Ballet: Maren Skrede
Polish National Ballet: Laurence Elliott
Zurich Ballet Junior Company: Gearoid Solan